Ernie Chambers still remembers the first time a new technology changed the way he experienced a church service. Chambers was six years old in 1939, when his father discovered the family could listen to pastors in faraway Dallas on their new radio, a battery-powered, toaster-size device ordered from a department store catalog. Instead of sitting through one Sunday morning church service, now Chambers had to get through two—the first in person, the second once his family returned home to their isolated farmhouse outside of Meridian and his father flipped on the radio. “By then, I just wanted to go outside and play,” Chambers recalls.
Eighty-four years later, Chambers, now a ninety-year-old grandfather, found himself struggling to sit through a different church service that had been upended by another new technology promising to change how believers experience their faith. This time around, the one-hour church service at Violet Crown City Church in North Austin was being directed by ChatGPT, the artificially intelligent, online chatbot released last year. Though the language-processing software—which has been designed to scan vast amounts of online information in a matter of seconds—is already being widely used to write essays, compose cover letters, and conduct research, Chambers and about sixty other worshippers were among the first people in the United States to experience a church service designed and dictated by AI.
Despite some misgivings, Chambers, whose faith began in a segregated, one-room, fundamentalist Baptist church in rural Texas with “lots of yelling,” decided he’d try to embrace the new experience. His life had spanned the end of segregation and the introduction of computers, and he’d learned to embrace radical change. “This feels like a revolutionary moment to me, one similar to the introduction of the printing press, and I’m open to it,” Chambers said.
The idea for a ChatGPT service came from Jay Cooper, the pastor at VCCC, a United Methodist congregation. Though he is nearing fifty, Cooper seems younger than his age. Like most in his congregation, he favors casual attire—a comfortable pair of jeans, an untucked, short-sleeve button-up, and open-toed sandals—which he sports at the pulpit. Cooper has a slight southern drawl and is quick to smile and joke, injecting levity into difficult topics. On any given Sunday, if you placed him among his congregants, he’d probably be mistaken for one of the middle-aged tech workers that have begun attending VCCC services in recent years.
Cooper grew up in a conservative Catholic household in Houston. As an adult, he left the Catholic Church to become a Methodist minister and worked in New Jersey, Arizona, and Guatemala before eventually returning to Texas. Cooper says he wants to make church an open environment where congregants feel comfortable exploring questions about their beliefs, and to help his congregation think through how their faith might manifest outside the church. He’s willing to engage with the political. In the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, Cooper led a series of sermons focused on opposing efforts to silence womens’ voices. He has discussed immigration policy and gun control and invited leaders from different faiths into the church to share their own messages. “It’s not like people are knocking down the doors of churches these days,” Cooper said. “You can’t just put up a sign and hope people show up. You have to find ways to be in their world and understand what’s important to them, even if it creates some controversy.”
This spring, as ChatGPT made headlines about AI unleashing chaos in classrooms and taking workers’ jobs, Cooper decided to allow AI to create a full worship service, from start to finish. The idea, he says, was not to put himself out of a job, but to create a religious experiment that would spark a larger dialogue about AI’s emerging role in society. He knew it might lead to some discomfort, but thought the educational upside outweighed the risks. “A church that hides within its four walls is out of touch with the world,” he told me a few days before the AI-led service.
Cooper isn’t the only faith leader fusing technology and spirituality. In Germany, one pastor introduced his congregation to an AI chatbot in the form of a bearded avatar that preaches on a giant screen overlooking an audience of three hundred Lutheran churchgoers. “You end up with a pretty solid church service,” Jonas Simmerlein, the church’s pastor, told the Associated Press in June. Perhaps even more popular is Mindar, an androgynous, seventy-pound robot who has been giving public sermons inside a four-hundred-year-old Japanese temple in Kyoto. Designers hope the machine’s sermons will generate interest in Buddhist teachings.
By September, Cooper had spent several months researching ChatGPT and feeding the program sermons and prompts. At one point, after he asked the software to write a “progressive Christian liturgy for communion,” it responded using the phrase “an open table”—a reference to the notion that anyone, of any belief system, is welcome to receive communion in a church, regardless of their allegiance to Christian faith. “It felt magical,” Cooper said. “Every Sunday, before communion, I say out loud that our congregation celebrates an ‘open table.’ It’s an important part of our message.”
Looking back, it was also one of the few things that ChatGPT nailed during VCCC’s AI-led service, which ranged from the mundane to the bizarre, leaving a robust discussion in its wake. In some ways, the nine-part service resembled an ordinary Sunday, with Cooper and other members of the congregation offering readings. But today, the readings came from a script written by ChatGPT. The script—which appeared on screens around the room that also displayed religious imagery created by AI—included a call to worship, an opening song, and a sermon with biblical language you’d hear in almost any church setting. But the service was plagued by a sense of the “uncanny valley,” a term that describes the unsettling feeling of eeriness elicited by humanoid robotics that appear very similar to, but not quite like, an actual human.
ChatGPT had a strange tendency to engage in verbal overkill, one exacerbated by its distinct inability to read the room. Instead of asking worshippers to take a seat at the beginning of the service, for example, the sermon instructed people to find a “comfortable seat” and then “not to be shy about scooting in a little closer to make room for others.” Next, as if sensing its own awkwardness, the robot introduced “a lighthearted moment” to “put everyone at ease,” a phrase that, predictably, had the opposite effect. “Let’s remember, laughter is a wonderful way to bring joy into our worship,” said the robot’s script, which was being read aloud by Cooper, before once again telling the audience to find the “perfect spot” and to “take a deep breath” as we prepared to “make a joyful noise.”
Cooper had asked the software to write a message for children about how to separate truth from lies. The AI led the children through a dry, five-hundred-word lecture (complete with bullet points) that urged them to “check multiple sources,” advice better suited for a high school journalism class. Finally, after instructing the children to “close their eyes” and “say a little prayer,” ChatGPT finished with more heavy-handed, cartoonish enthusiasm: “I hope you have a wonderful day, filled with truth, love, and joy!” Later, the robot compared the search for truth to looking for one’s keys in the dark and stubbing a toe on the “coffee table of confusion.” This unfortunate analogy was followed by an AI-generated song called “Solid Rock of Truth” that the church band leader said made him feel “icky.” A largely normal blessing closed the service.
After the service, a kid approached Cooper and told him it wasn’t a very good service. “He actually said, ‘I think it was your worst,’ ” the pastor said. Cooper said he was particularly struck by two congregants who said that while they’d experienced variations of this same experience a thousand times before, “What makes us us was missing,” Cooper said, noting that he has no plans to repeat the AI experiment. “I think people felt the service didn’t have the spirit, and I don’t necessarily mean the Holy Spirit. It just felt like someone wrote that service a long time ago and it had nothing to do with any of us.”
John Pittard, an associate professor at Yale Divinity School, believes religious communities should think carefully about the ethics of placing AI into worship spaces. During a recent appearance on a podcast featuring conversations with the divinity school’s faculty, Pittard cautioned that AI could erode an important element of Christianity’s vision for a good life: the responsibility that members of religious communities have to one another. Chatbots could lessen “our direct dependence on our neighbors or our fellow sojourners in these communities of belief, on people we actually see,” Pittard said. “Someone might use AI for counseling, for friendship, for spiritual direction. Even if a pastor is giving a sermon there’s a sense in which that pastor has invested less of himself or herself in the service prep if they’re using ChatGPT.” The technology fails “to use our minds, our hearts, our loves in a certain way that is sacred,” he added.
Technology didn’t create an insurmountable barrier to the sacred for Chambers, who said he was able to connect with God during a service that almost everyone else panned as inauthentic and creepy. Sure, the AI-generated song was a bit strange, he said, and parts of the sermon were so devoid of authentic human energy they nearly put him to sleep. But in the end, he noted, he was willing to endure a bad service if it offered an opportunity to learn. “One of the things I really liked was that after the worship service was over, we gathered in the fellowship hall to discuss artificial intelligence and I really enjoyed listening to the diversity of thoughts and opinions that were expressed there,” he said. “AI is going to change everything. We need to do what we can to understand what it’s capable of, both the good and the bad.”
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